Soli Sorabjee

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A brief biography


Fali S Nariman, May 1, 2021: The Times of India

Soli and I graduated from the same law college, though in different years, the Government Law College, Bombay, as it was then known. Each of us was fortunate to find a berth in the same lawyers’ chambers — that of the greatest, and also the most humble, of the giants of the Bombay bar: Sir Jamshedji Kanga. He was so well-reputed and revered that he was the only advocate on whose death, at the ripe old age of 94, the entire high court remained closed as a mark of respect.

I was two years senior to Soli in the profession but, as we always joked, he was two years my ‘senior’ in matrimony — he married Zena before I married Bapsi. Each of us had long since celebrated not only six glorious decades at the bar, both in Mumbai and in Delhi, but also celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary as well.

In May 1972, I was appointed the third law officer of the Union of India, but a couple of years later, resigned as additional solicitor general of India, a day after the Emergency of June 26, 1975. However, Soli not only had a stint as solicitor general of India but then moved on to become attorney general.


Abhishek Singhvi, May 1, 2021: The Times of India

Though a master of diverse facets of law, Soli’s eyes would light up with passion on two themes — constitutional and media law. He was thrilled that I did my PhD in public law and that too under the renowned Prof Sir William Wade, whom he personally knew. He frowned upon any intention of mine to discontinue my subscription to the journal Public Law.

It is in public law that Soli cut his legal teeth and made a mark as a lawyer. Satwant Singh (1967) established the contours of the right to travel. From a junior in Keshavanda (1973) to a law officer in Maneka (1978) to the Auroville case (1983) on religion, Soli helped immeasurably in shaping the law. In Kihoto, Soli expanded the limits of judicial review of 10th Schedule cases but his finest moment was undoubtedly the celebrated Bommai decision (1994). It has forever changed the meaning of Indian federalism. There are many other landmark judgements, including those in Soli’s advancing years viz BP Singhal (2010) on rights of a governor against dismissal and the Shreya Singhal case (2015) circumscribing intrusions on free speech under the IT Act.

When we spoke at conferences — two major ones were at Karachi in 1987 and in Kashmir a few years later — it was mandatory to congregate in Soli’s room for mimicry sessions. At the latter, Soli’s each mimicry item was dramatised by a tall strapping lawyer in shorts, Divyang Chaya, with all of us in uncontrollable splits. Pakistani lawyers and the influential Karachi Parsee community revered him alike and I enjoyed their derivative affection for decades, especially as president of Saarclaw.

Soli as chamber head has spawned a longer list of juniors who became eminent seniors than perhaps anyone else in the history of the Indian Bar. M/s Subramaniam, Salve, Ganesh, Lalit, Lokur, Haksar and many more are in that list. His chamber was my first choice but I found it overcrowded. His children have excelled in their chosen vocations — top doctor, top car analyst and top lawyer — but old fashioned Soli would always lament that daughter Zia (heading India’s largest law firm), should have remained a counsel!

The first room upon entering his house remained his favourite till the end, his “go to” den of music, books & discs/ records, neatly lined. To be allowed into this sanctorum was a privilege and since I knew nothing about jazz except its spelling, he would show me his well-thumbed, read and marked books. Their range was breathtaking. He lamented giving away some which were never returned. Today, Soli would definitely be enjoying paradise with the same music and books.

Basic structure doctrine

Dhananjay Mahapatra , May 1, 2021: The Times of India

Covid-19 ended the life of one of India’s tallest legal luminaries, Soli J Sorabjee, whose illustrious career contributed in shaping India’s constitutional jurisprudence, including the cast-in-stone basic structure doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court in 1973, and the international human rights field. He was 91.

Sorabjee is survived by wife Zena, daughter Zia, a solicitor, elder son Jehangir who is a physician, and Hormazd, an automobile journalist. Starting as a junior in Jamshedji Kanga’s chamber in the late 1950s, he soon acquired proficiency and was noticed. So much so that he supplemented the great jurist Nani Palkhivala in rendering assistance to the 13-judge constitution bench of the SC in Keshavananda Bharati case, resulting in formulation of the most important doctrine — the unamendable basic structure of the Constitution.

After Sorabjee was first appointed attorney general, Palkhivala had written a congratulatory note, saying, “The greatest glory of the attorney general is not to win cases for the government but to ensure that justice is done to the people.” Sorabjee made conscious attempts to live up to the golden words of the great jurist.

Like most successful Parsi lawyers, including Fali S Nariman, T R Andhyarujina and R F Nariman (now an SC judge), Sorabjee never tolerated an unprepared junior and always had a stern message to lawyers assisting him: listen to the judge and understand what he is asking. Sorabjee also never allowed juniors or even the richest clients to venture near him if they had a common cold. Knowing the hygiene levels he maintained both at home and the chamber, it is surprising that coronavirus breached Sorabjee’s precautionary shield.

He was appointed additional solicitor general in 1977and as attorney general for the first time in December 1989 and then again in 1998.

CJI N V Ramana said in his condolence message, “Sorabjee will be remembered as a legend who added strength to the pillars of democracy. In his nearly 68-year-long association with the judicial world, he made an immeasurable contribution in enriching the global jurisprudence of human rights and fundamental rights.”

“The matters that he argued before the courts and the judgments that he could secure; the books, essays, papers of international repute and the newspaper articles that he authored; the independent opinions he could tender to the government in his capacity as the attorney general, they all stand testimony to his deep commitment to democratic values. He not only lived up to the mandate of the attorney general as enshrined in the Constitution but also raised the bar in discharge of his constitutional duties.”

Justice D Y Chandrachud said, “Over a legal career which traverses Kesavananda Bharati (1973), Maneka Gandhi (expansion of right to life, 1978), Sunil Batra (prisoners’ rights, 1978) D C Wadhwa (which stopped routine re-promulgation of ordinances, 1987) and S R Bommai (the famous judgment on curtailing Centre’s power to dismiss state governments under Article 356, 1994), Soli has shaped and reshaped the attempt to bring cohesion and stability to the legal doctrine.”

He was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 2002.

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